Thursday, June 23, 2011

Travels in foreign lands-XI (Crossing the Iron Curtain-I)

The train to Warsaw did not start on schedule at 9 pm. We were delayed by an hour and finally the train left the Vienna station around 10 pm. After leaving Vienna, the journey was through the darkness of the night. Due to the lights inside the train cabin, nothing much was visible outside. In the cabin I was sitting near the window and next to me, there was a young couple, very much excited. Probably they were travelling first time to Poland or so. There were some other people, mostly elderly, sitting in the same cabin. After some time we started dozing. Around mid-night I was woken up when the train stopped. We had reached the Czechoslovakian border. A number of uniformed officers from the Police, Immigration, and Customs came in. They were checking the papers and the baggage of passengers. We stopped almost two hours at the border. The checking was very thorough and meticulous. The young couple had lot of arguments with the checking staff. There seemed to be something wrong and they were finally taken off the train.
An officer demanded my passport. He studied it thoroughly and then demanded my Czechoslovakian visa. I told him that I was not going to Czechoslovakia but to Warsaw in Poland. However, he argued that I needed a transit visa and could not cross their territory without a transit visa. He was insisting that I have to go back and get a transit visa. I told him that I was first time travelling to Poland and had been invited by the Polish Ski Federation. He seemed somewhat relenting and asked me if I had dollars. On my saying that I had dollars, he demanded twenty dollars cash. Once I gave these, I was stamped a transit visa and allowed to proceed. I do not know what happened to the young couple? Probably they were sent back?
After the checks were complete, the train restarted towards Warsaw. I too started feeling sleepy like others and dozed off for sometime. As soon as there was light, the train again stopped but this time only for few minutes. We had reached the Polish border. The checking staff came on board the train and it started moving again. The checking was done in the moving train. The Polish staff checked my visa and stamped my entry in the passport. The lady who was stamping the passports asked me how many days I intended to stay in Warsaw. On being told 4 days, she demanded 80 dollars, 20 for each day to be converted into Polish currency. They had a regulation that every tourist had to exchange money for being spent in Poland. Later I came to know that there was process for changing back the unspent Polish money! After an hour or so we again stopped at a small station and a large number of people came in. These included men, women, and children. It seemed to be some sort of a festival? The train was virtually overloaded.
There were people everywhere. An elderly lady came and sat on the seat in front of me. She smiled and I asked her if she spoke English but she replied in negative. Then I asked her in French if she spoke the language, she immediately nodded and answered me in French. This allowed me for the first time to start a conversation with a local person. Incidentally, she was the wife of the first secretary in the Polish embassy in New Delhi. She told me that we had just passed the Church of Black Virgin, an important pilgrimage in Poland. The rush was because of the festival. I had an impression that the people behind the Iron Curtain were all atheists. Communism does not recognize God or religion. Marx had termed religion as the opium of the poor. I asked the lady about this. She translated my question into Polish and spoke loudly to the people present in the cabin who were getting interested in our conversation. They all became excited and took out small crosses to show me that they were all devout Christians! Even small children took out their small crosses to show me these. I was quite surprised but elated to find that the Communism had not diminished their faith! A discussion started about Communism and Russia. It emerged that most of the people hated Russia. Just an hour or so before the arrival at Warsaw station, the lady invited me for a cup of coffee in the restaurant car. We spoke about her stay in India and the conditions in Poland. As I returned to the cabin, the lady to her shock discovered that her coat had been stolen! She was terribly upset. This was for the first time such a thing had happened. However, on arrival in Warsaw we had another surprise. As soon as we descended from the train some Police Officers in uniform came to us. They questioned the lady in Polish and she was taken away. I was asked by some other officers to accompany them in a car. They told me that I was an American spy and had come there to create disturbances. Probably, there must have been some KGB personnel on the train who must have listened to our conversation. They must have reported me to the KGB people. They took me in the car all over Warsaw all the time accusing me of being a spy.
At first I was amused but as time passed I started getting scared and panicky. The only thing which came to my mind was somehow to contact the Indian Embassy who could verify my identity. I told the officers to take me to the Indian Embassy but being a Sunday, the told me that the Embassy was closed. As a last resort I told them to take me to the Ambassador’s residence. They drove me through a posh residential area and as soon as I saw the Indian tri-colour fluttering at the door of a building, I was greatly relieved! The moment I pressed the call bell, a servant of the Ambassador came out. I gave him my card. No sooner I did this, the Polish Police Officer wished me a nice stay in Poland, shook my hand, and went away smiling. The Ambassador called me in immediately. Those days Mr. Kamatekar was the Indian Ambassador to Poland.

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